Manaf Hamaameen and his youngest child play on a mobile phone in their small room in a refu­gee shelter this month in Luxembourg. (Virginie Nguyen Hoang/For The Washington Post)

Having fled the ravages of the Islamic State in his native Iraq, Manaf Hamaameen landed on the Greek island of Lesbos last fall thinking he and his family would start their lives over in Britain or Sweden.

An official at the island’s main refugee camp had a different idea. She told Hamaameen that he could save his family the arduous trip over land by agreeing to let the European Union fly them to a place he had never heard of: Luxembourg.

“From that moment, we changed the course of our journey,” said Hamaameen, who has two severely disabled young children, neither of whom can walk.

The solution to Hamaameen’s dilemma was also supposed to be the key to unlocking Europe’s struggle with an unparalleled flow of refugees. By taking people off the migrant trail and distributing them more evenly across the continent, the E.U. could bring order to a process marked by chaos.

A record number of migrants and refugees are attempting perilous journeys to find a safer, better life in Europe. Here's why they're leaving and how they're being received. (Jason Aldag and Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

But four months after European leaders agreed to the plan following long and bitter negotiations, the program has been crippled by a lack of cooperation — from countries and the refugees themselves. Out of an intended total of 160,000 asylum seekers, the E.U. has relocated a paltry 272.

The figure — which is less than the number of asylum seekers who arrived on Lesbos every hour at the peak of the fall — is an embarrassment for E.U. leaders who advocate a common solution to a crisis that has strained European unity as no other in recent decades. With refugee flows expected to begin climbing again within weeks, it adds to the odds that Europe will ultimately have to close its borders to refugees — and that walls will rise on a continent where the ideal of free movement once flourished.

“We need to slow down the flows,” said Dimitris Avramopoulos, who as E.U. migration commissioner was the relocation plan’s architect. “European solidarity is at stake.”

Avramopoulos acknowledged in an interview that the relocation program had been a disappointment. He blamed countries that remain unwilling to welcome refugees, even though nearly every E.U. member is required to accept a quota based on its gross domestic product and population. The program has been hotly contested from the start, with Hungary and Slovakia going so far as to challenge its legitimacy in court.

After reports surfaced of mass sex attacks and muggings by men of Arab or North African descent in the German city of Cologne on New Year’s Eve, Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico reiterated that his government would not allow the E.U. to relocate Muslim asylum seekers to his country.

“We don’t want something like what happened in Germany taking place in Slovakia,” Fico said.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, meanwhile, on Friday called for construction of “a European defense line” on Greece’s northern borders to stop refugee flows entirely — not just slow them.

Without a successful relocation program, Orban could get his way. Avramopoulos described E.U.-coordinated relocation as a direct challenge to the “xenophobia and populism that are gaining ground in Europe and undermining the European project.”

So far, however, populism seems to be winning the day as shared solutions founder. Other attempts to ease the refugee crisis through European solidarity have also fallen short, with countries ignoring for months a plea by the E.U.’s border agency, Frontex, to send additional guards to reinforce beleaguered authorities in Greece.

But the problems with the relocation program go beyond a lack of participation by countries. The refugees haven’t shown much interest, either.

The program may save them from a difficult transcontinental journey, but it can create other hardships. Under the rules, asylum seekers don’t get to choose where they end up. Many are loath to risk being sent to a country where they’re unwelcome — such as Slovakia. Or they already have their hearts set on a destination where they have family or friends.

Allowing the refugees to decide where they go has led to a deeply uneven distribution of the burden. Popular destinations, such as Sweden, have been overwhelmed and have recently introduced border controls to keep refugees out. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is under pressure from within her own coalition to do the same after 1.1 million people applied for asylum there last year. European leaders say the continent can no longer afford to give refugees a choice.

“It’s not shopping time,” Xavier Bettel, Luxembourg’s prime minister, said in an interview. “It’s on us to decide where people are able to get decent situations to live, and not on them to decide where they want to go.”

This blink-and-you-miss-it country at the heart of Western Europe was the first to accept asylum seekers from Greece under the relocation plan. On Nov. 4, 30 of them were flown here and welcomed to a country that is the richest, per capita, in all of Europe.

Luxembourg has long been central to European integration efforts. Several E.U. institutions are based here, and the open-borders Schengen zone is named for a Luxembourg village nestled between French and German territory.

Despite Luxembourg’s wealth, it is far from the beaten path of the migrant trail. Expensive housing, a lack of jobs outside the banking sector and the confusion that comes with having three official languages are all deterrents.

So is the fact that Luxembourg, with a smaller population than the District of Columbia, is a virtual unknown among refugees. The grand duchy received about 2,500 asylum applications last year — or less than a quarter of 1 percent of the German total.

“I thought Luxembourg was a part of Germany,” said Abdel el-Hussein, a 43-year-old Syrian, who, with his wife and three children, fled their native Aleppo. “We had never thought about Luxembourg.”

But for the past two months, it has been their home. The family is living in a former hospital building on the outskirts of this ancient city, the old sector of which is ringed by crumbling medieval walls. The children are attending local schools, learning French, German and the local tongue, Luxembourgish. Hussein’s wife, Houda el-Ali, will be receiving treatment here for her chronically infected left eye socket; the eyeball was blasted away by shrapnel before the family left Syria.

“This place is very comfortable for us, and the people are very kind,” Ali said. “Going to another country would have taken a lot of time and cost a lot of money. Luxembourg made our journey a lot shorter.”

But that’s not always the case.

Asylum seekers arriving in either Greece or Italy can be waylaid in those countries for up to two months while authorities try to find a placement elsewhere in Europe. But neither country has sufficient facilities to house large numbers of refugees for such long stretches.

Both have also struggled to set up the “hot spots” where new arrivals are supposed to be screened for program eligibility. Out of 11 planned locations across Greece and Italy, just three are operational.

Bettel, the prime minister, said a unified European approach to the crisis can be effective. But if countries don’t follow through on the commitments they made last year, he said, the situation could deteriorate quickly in the spring, when flows are expected to pick up after a winter lull. “If we are not able to manage this, it will be a big failure for all of us,” he said.

Hamaameen, the Iraqi asylum seeker who came here with his wife and children, is meanwhile just hoping that Luxembourg comes through on its commitments to his family.

When he accepted the offer of relocation, he said officials in Lesbos told him that Luxembourg was a “very nice country, because Germany and France and Belgium are not too far away. And they have a lot of rules there.”

Coming from a lawless region of northern Iraq, Hamaameen liked the sound of that. But most important was that officials told him he could get treatment in Luxembourg for his children, 8 and 10, who suffer from profound mental and physical disabilities. Two months later, he’s still waiting.

“I hope the government will give what was promised,” said Hamaameen, a carpenter whose graying temples make him look older than his 30 years. “If not, I will blame myself for choosing to come here.”

Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.

Read more

A British exit could be just the start of Europe’s unraveling in 2016

Even Europe’s humanitarian superpower is turning its back on refugees

Read The Post’s coverage on the global surge in migration

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world